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The Cradle of Christianity Faces a Diminishing Flock

The Cradle of Christianity Faces a Diminishing Flock

Rebecca Trounson
Los Angeles Times
March 22, 2000
Title: The Cradle of Christianity Faces a Diminishing Flock
Author: Rebecca Trounson, Times Staff Writer
Publication: Los Angeles Times
Date: March 22, 2000

Religion: Followers are increasingly leaving Holy Land, drawn by the promise of better lives, jobs abroad.

JERUSALEM--Sammy Kirreh wistfully recalls a time when several hundred Palestinian congregants filled the hard-backed wooden chairs of this city's Anglican cathedral each Sunday morning. These days, in a scene reflected in parish after parish across the Holy Land, barely 50 people--at least half of them tourists--attend the weekly services, their voices echoing through a large, mostly empty church.

"It's lonely for Christians here now," said Kirreh, 39, who was baptized and married in St. George's Cathedral, the Jerusalem church he still attends with his wife and two young sons. "So many have left."

Two thousand years after Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, Christians are a dwindling population in the land known as the cradle of their faith. Although Christians have never been a majority in the Holy Land, their exodus lately is so marked that some churches here, once the heart of thriving communities, are in danger of becoming Christian "museums," their elders predict glumly.

The weeklong Holy Land pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II, who arrived in Israel as dusk fell Tuesday, is intended in part to encourage and spotlight the local Christian communities. But the visit will also underscore their diminishing strength: On Friday, for instance, when John Paul is scheduled to celebrate Mass with 100,000 young people gathered on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee, at least half of them will have flown in from other countries.

"When we have to bring Christians in to hold such a Mass, it tells you why we worry that Christians may eventually disappear from the Holy Land," said Bernard Sabella, a sociologist at Bethlehem University who studies emigration trends among Christian and Muslim Palestinians.

Sabella and other experts fear that, within a generation or two, some small communities that number only a few dozen families each--Syrian Catholics and Armenian and Syrian Orthodox--will fade to insignificance here. But even the larger communities, including Greek Orthodox and Greek and Roman Catholic, are watching anxiously as young Christians steadily leave the land of their forefathers with the promise of better lives, and jobs, abroad.

"We are very concerned about the emigration of the Christian community," Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the leading Roman Catholic official here, said at a recent news conference in Jerusalem's Old City. "We hope that one day, once we will have peace, the emigration, if [it does] not stop, will at least be shortened."

Sabbah said he hopes John Paul's presence will fortify the Christian community and affirm its "role in the land." But many others say that not even the pope's visit seems likely to stem the tide of departures.

That Christians are on tenuous ground in the territory that now makes up Israel and the Palestinian areas is attributable largely to the same factors that have made life difficult here for Palestinian Muslims, various analysts say: decades of conflict, political turmoil and economic uncertainty. Even now, a sputtering peace process keeps the future unpredictable and job prospects limited.

Christian emigration began around the turn of the century, in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, says sociologist Sabella, a Roman Catholic. It increased dramatically with the birth of Israel in 1948 and the upheaval that followed, when thousands of Christian and Muslim Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes. The 1967 Middle East War and Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip spurred more departures.

But the rate of emigration among Christians is nearly twice as high as that for Muslims, Sabella says. Christians have had more opportunity than their neighbors to leave and have used their education in Western languages and their family connections abroad as springboards for departure to the United States and Canada, South America and Europe. Their exodus is also more evident, Sabella notes, because of the relatively small size of their communities compared with the Muslim majority.

Once they depart, very few return.

"Every year I hear them leave, [and] promise to come back, and they never do," said Father Thomas Stransky, 70, the former rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies in Jerusalem. "What does an engineer do here? What does a chemist do here? I can't in good conscience tell them to go. But in good conscience I can't tell them to stay either."

Around the turn of the century, Christians accounted for about 13% of the population of what was then called Palestine. Today, they make up slightly more than 2% of the population of Israel and the Palestinian territories, according to Sabella. And while today's Christian population of about 180,000 is 25% larger than it was in the British-ruled Palestine of 1948, Sabella calculates that about 234,000 Arab Christians have left since the creation of Israel later that year.

Christian roots stretch deep into the soil here, with many Palestinian Christians able to trace their family trees back at least 400 years. Historians say some Christian names, like that of the Siniora clan, a prominent East Jerusalem family, can be traced to the Crusaders, European invaders who first arrived in the 11th century.

But the years of instability have taken their toll, giving rise to a community that is both shrinking and aging. The average age of Arab Christians, about 32, is nearly twice that of Palestinians generally, which is about 17.

"We go to many more funerals than weddings or baptisms," said Cedar Duaybis, 64, a retired teacher whose late husband served as the Anglican pastor of the West Bank city of Nablus. Duaybis decries the departures of Christians, saying that each one makes it harder for those who remain, but she acknowledges that two of her own children have felt a need to emigrate. One son lives in Los Angeles and another in Canada, she says.

In Bethlehem, which had a large Christian majority until the century's midpoint, only about a third of the population of 35,000 today is Christian. The city's private Christian schools, including Catholic-run Bethlehem University, which was founded in 1973 in an effort to stop the flight of young Christians abroad, have a majority of Muslim students.

Nazareth, the northern Israeli city where Jesus is believed to have spent his childhood, also is now about 70% Muslim. Tensions over a mosque that Muslims want to build beside the massive Basilica of the Annunciation in the center of Nazareth have divided the two religious communities and frightened some tourists away. Last Christmas, as the dispute simmered, only a handful of Nazareth's Christians attended traditional holiday services at the city's churches.

A few Christians say the tensions in Nazareth, along with an increase in Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Middle East, have fueled anxieties among remaining community members about staying put.

But most say their situation, although difficult, is neither better nor worse than that of Muslims, either in Israel or in the territories under the control of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Both Christians and Muslim Arabs face a variety of economic and social problems in the Jewish state, where they hold citizenship and vote but are ineligible for a host of benefits and jobs available to Jewish citizens.

In the West Bank, Christians, along with their Muslim neighbors, face high unemployment and other problems, many of which are associated with Israel's continuing occupation of about 60% of the territory. Arafat's self-rule government is hardly democratic, but Christians fare no worse under it than Muslims, most say. Many of those close to the Palestinian leader are Christians, including his wife, Suha; the director of his office, Ramzi Khoury; and his chief spokesman, Nabil abu Rudaineh.

"There is no difference in the problems we face here as Palestinians, either Christian or Muslim," said Manuel Hassassian, an Armenian Catholic who is vice president of Bethlehem University. "These problems are political and economic, not religious. But still, we hope the pope can help."

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